Officiating at Wembley

British Official Simon Ryan looks at the key role which British officials play when the NFL comes to town.

When the NFL visits London for its annual “International Series” regular season contest, it’s more than a game – it’s an event. The players are American, the coaches are American, the cheerleaders are American and the game officials are… get the idea. But hold-on a minute. Not everyone is American. There are a lot of key people that are British, and as Michael Caine might say, “Not a lot of people know that”.

The NFL has been visiting the UK for over 25 years. Its various divisions have formed strong relationships during this time. The NFL Officials have formed deep bonds with their British counterparts – BAFRA (British American Football Referees Association). When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Chicago Bears this year, BAFRA were called upon to help out on the game itself.

For over 20 years BAFRA have supplied 8 volunteers to help the NFL Officials. They’re called “The Chain Crew” and the jobs that they do are vital. Each member has a different job, the main aim being to tell everyone which Down it is and indicate to the players how far they need to go to get the all-important First Down. If you look carefully they are the people wearing yellow and black tabards, holding bright orange stakes and standing at the edge of the playing field, next to the coaches and players. Short of being on the field itself you can’t get any closer to the action. All members of BAFRA are eligible for selection and you could be there too! Go to for more details.

The 8 lucky volunteers really appreciate just how lucky they are to (literally) be rubbing shoulders with the stars of the NFL. It’s a privilege that is earned by hard-work throughout the year, and there’s always a nice surprise in store.

One of this year’s chain crew was Dan Bridgland. Dan is a typical example of the amateur sports official – somehow finding the time for his hobby whilst balancing the demands of a career and young family. On top of that Dan is a stalwart of his local officials association, helping and mentoring newer officials. Dan’s hard-work paid-off this year and he was rewarded by being selected to Referee at the National Finals this year, as well as being selected for the NFL game at Wembley.

Like most amateur officials Dan is a fan of the sport and has a favourite team, the Dallas Cowboys. Dan managed to meet one of the Cowboys all-time great players, Daryl “Moose” Johnston before the game. Since retiring from playing Daryl has now become one of the top commentators for the Fox TV network.

Daryl was really interested to hear from Dan about how the game was growing so fast in the UK and that there was now a shortage of officials! He even mentioned it to the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during the TV broadcast. (click for link to video)

The star-spotting did not stop there. Dan was talking to Chicago Bears legends Richard Dent and Otis Wilson just minutes before the kick-off. Richard advised the chain crew to “stand and take the hit” rather than worrying about their personal safety on the side-line, but Dan wasn’t so sure!

The game started and Chicago jumped-out to an early lead. Dan was glad he was on the Chicago side-line as the players were happy and enjoying the lead. In the 2nd Quarter Bears receiver Johnny Knox made a catch close to the side-line and Dan was just 6 yards away from it. Chicago were on a roll but Tampa Bay fought back and a long drive at the end of the 2nd quarter saw the Buccaneers score a Field Goal and make it 14-5 at half-time.

Half-time flew by and there was barely enough time to eat a sandwich! The crew had to be back-out and ready to go in time for the 2nd half kick-off.

Dan spent the 2nd half of the game on the Tampa Bay side-line where the mood was different. Chicago scored another touchdown early-on in the 3rd quarter. The Buccaneers were quiet and focused on their business.

In the 4th quarter Tampa Bay scored their first touchdown. They soon got the ball back to score their second touchdown and the atmosphere in the stadium was electric. It was now a 3 point game. Chicago now had the ball and there was a tangible sense of excitement whenever the Bears’ Devin Hester touched the football. The Bears kicked a field goal and the score was now 24-18 to Chicago with about 2 minutes left, just enough time for Tampa Bay to mount a comeback. This meant Dan and his colleagues had to be quick, keep the chains moving and not delay the game. With less than a minute to go a pass was thrown towards the Tampa Bay side-line and Dan had to be alert to avoid Chicago’s Charles Tillman as he closed-in on the Buccaneers Wide Receiver Preston Parker. One play later, Chicago intercepted Buccaneers Quarterback Josh Freeman’s pass to seal the win for the Bears.

After the game the chain crew were tired but elated. It had been a good, close game and things had gone smoothly running the chains. It was now time for Dan to relax, unwind and watch his beloved Cowboys beat the St Louis Rams at the NFL crew and staff after-party. A good end to a fantastic day.